Why the score is not even on graded lessons

19th September 2014 at 01:00
Ofsted may still assess FE teachers, despite changes in schools

Graded lesson observations are a thing of the past in school inspections, but Ofsted may continue the controversial practice in further education, TES can reveal.

The watchdog is also reviewing whether to carry out more no-notice inspections of colleges and independent training providers, although a senior director has expressed concerns about using the approach across the board.

At the end of last month, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw announced that inspectors would no longer be grading individual teachers in schools, after a pilot that proved to be "incredibly popular" with the profession.

But in an exclusive interview with TES, Ofsted's national director for FE and skills revealed that no decision had yet been made regarding the post-16 sector, after lobbying by colleges. Lorna Fitzjohn said she had been "surprised" by the strength of feeling among college leaders, who argued that lessons should continue to be graded. Meanwhile, she added, many lecturers opposed the practice.

A consultation on the introduction of a single new inspection framework for all kinds of education providers is expected to begin next month, with a raft of significant changes under consideration for the FE sector. These include proposals to introduce shorter but more frequent monitoring inspections for providers that have been rated good. The inspections would be carried out every three years, rather than every six as under the current system. Providers rated "requires improvement" could also be given more time to make progress.

But the news that inspectors may continue to grade individual teachers in colleges is likely to be one of the most controversial aspects of the reforms.

Ms Fitzjohn said that she had already held discussions with the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers about their members' views. "I've been quite surprised how keen some of them are on retaining the grade for the teaching observation," she admitted.

But there was a broad split between lecturers and their managers: while some teachers would feel "quite affronted" if they did not receive a grade, many approved of change, she added.

"We're looking at an all-through framework and making it as level [for different types of institutions] as we can, but still retaining a way of inspecting FE and skills that is useful for them and actually makes a difference. It doesn't have to be identical to schools."

AoC director of education policy Joy Mercer said college leaders had "a lot of sympathy" with the idea of inspectors grading lesson observations. "It's certainly safe to say some colleges like lesson observations being graded because it allows them to compare their self-assessment with Ofsted's view," Ms Mercer added. "There's something about quantitative numbers that's much better than qualitative [feedback]."

The University and College Union, however, has voiced strong opposition to retaining grades for individual observations. In a report earlier this year, 85 per cent of members surveyed said they did not think lesson observations were the most effective way of assessing staff performance.

Andrew Harden, the union's head of FE, said the majority of teachers found that observations led to "increased stress levels". He added: "Our members believe that the current system of lesson observations is not fit for purpose and that a complete overhaul is required."

The prospect of no-notice inspections, first proposed by Sir Michael in 2012, has also re-emerged after the "Trojan Horse" investigation into schools in Birmingham, with the chief inspector arguing in June that they would be the "best way to make sure.inspectors see schools as they normally are". This proposal would be included in the consultation, Ms Fitzjohn said.

But the concept has proved a tricky one for the FE sector to adapt to, because of the range of provision in larger colleges and the high proportion of students likely to be based in a workplace at any one time.

Although no-notice inspections are already used occasionally in the sector, Ms Fitzjohn said the watchdog "could use more of them". But she added that there would be "clear disadvantages" to a blanket introduction, not least the difficulties of meeting work-based learners and local employers at short notice.

"These are meaningful conversations because they are so important to the process," she added. "There are opportunities to use [no-notice inspections] more, but not to use them all the time."

This view was supported by Ms Mercer, who warned that no-notice inspections would inevitably exclude huge swathes of colleges' provision.

"Will this actually be a report worth reading?" she said. "Do they want to catch people out or find out what's working? We can already have no-notice inspections for safeguarding issues. That should be how it should stay."

`No-notice for all is unrealistic'

In 2012, Exeter College was one of two FE providers to be given a no-notice inspection under an Ofsted pilot scheme. Principal Richard Atkins says that the experience was positive for the college, which was rated outstanding. Staff "much preferred" the shorter notice period and found it less stressful.

"There were some real positives and our staff loved it, but to apply this to all inspections is unrealistic," he says. "I think a day or two notice would help to ensure that the principal - whose job may or may not be on the line - is able to attend. It would be a big logistical exercise to get the inspection started on a Monday morning without any notice."

Mr Atkins, who is also president of the Association of Colleges, is concerned about the prospect of grades being removed from lesson observations. "I don't see grading lesson observations as entirely negative," he says. "It's a way to identify staff training needs and spread good practice.

"What makes me nervous about Ofsted getting rid of grades is that it would make it much more difficult for a college to challenge any judgements. Even if inspectors just give feedback, teachers will try and work out what grade they would have got."


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today